WASHINGTON – Defense attorneys worked Tuesday to raise doubt that Ahmed Abu Khattala was the man who orchestrated the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, highlighting evidence about how local Libyan forces working for the Americans didn’t defend the U.S. compounds.
The trial for Abu Khattala entered its second day with U.S. government prosecutors continuing to question a diplomatic security agent who tried unsuccessfully to save ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Patrick Smith, a State Department information management officer, from a burning U.S. compound. Nearly eight hours later, two more Americans, contract security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in a mortar attack on a CIA complex nearby.
The defense says Abu Khattala was not the ringleader and only went to the site of the attacks because he was curious about what was happening. Defense attorney Michelle Peterson cross-examined the diplomatic security agent, Chris Wickland, who had testified about confronting members of a Libyan security force who he thought let down the Americans during the attack.
“I remember looking at them dead in the eye and said ‘Where were you?’” Wickland said he told them during a lull in the attack. After gunfire resumed, the disorganized local force “just started running.”
Peterson, who sat next to Abu Khattala during the trial, highlighted the Libyan force’s lack of response in helping defend U.S. personnel as part of a strategy to suggest that other local Libyans — perhaps former loyalists to former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi or turncoats working at the compound — were to blame for the attacks.
The defense has called Abu Khattala a “Libyan patriot” who fought on America’s side in the war against Gadhafi.
“You knew there were Gadhafi loyalists who still remained?” she asked Wickland.
“Yes,” he replied.
“By the time the revolution was over, there were still loyalists?” she asked.
“I would assume so,” Wickland replied.
Wickland testified that the armed local Libyan force that scattered at one point during the attack might have been disorganized, but did not show hostility toward the Americans. Two of the members of that force Wickland knew personally were so disturbed by what had happened that they had “tears in their eyes,” he said.
Wickland also testified that another local unarmed force working with the Americans did their job in alerting the pending strike. He said members of that group who had been trained to shout “attack, attack, attack” to warn the Americans did scream the words into their radios just before the strike.
On Monday, Wickland offered an emotional account of how he tried to save Stevens and Smith at the diplomatic compound. He retook the stand Tuesday morning and continued his harrowing tale of surviving and how he and other Americans jumped in an armored vehicle in hopes of driving to the CIA annex nearby. Wickland, who was driving, described how the vehicle was attacked during their circuitous drive through groups of hostile Libyans.
“I just floored it. They (armed men along the road) all raised up (their weapons) and started shooting the car, pelting the car hundreds of times,” he said, adding that he later plowed through parked vehicles and a wooden roadblock.
They eventually reached the CIA annex, which was then attacked by mortars. He recalled being treated in a medical room for his injuries, drinking water and eating fruit for energy. He was having trouble breathing because of the smoke he had inhaled, but there was no oxygen to help with that and he grabbed a gun and took up a position to help with the attack on the annex.
Later, he heard a loud explosion and David Ubben, another diplomatic security agent, was brought down to the medical room.
“The mortar basically had ripped off his leg,” Wickland said. “He had shrapnel in his face, and it had ripped off part of his arm. It’s hard to see your friend like that.”